Pioneer School Committee pauses talks on SRO until at least next budget cycle

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield.

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-25-2024 10:26 AM

NORTHFIELD — Any discussions about the school resource officer position will have to wait at least until the next budget cycle, as the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee opted, by consensus, to not revisit the topic at this time.

The topic was revisited last week after the Northfield Selectboard requested the School Committee reconsider its July 2023 vote rejecting the position, while also asking the committee and school district to conduct public engagement and survey practices on the topic, similarly to what has been done in recent months for its facilities master plan and child care initiatives.

“The Selectboard would like the school district to put forward a good faith effort as they have with similar recent efforts to petition the public for their opinion on this matter (i.e. community meetings, newsletters and electronic surveys,” a letter from the Selectboard reads, “and make a determination on the applicability based on what the taxpayers’ wants are determined to be.”

Prior to July’s vote, the school district and the Police Department had crafted a memorandum of understanding laying out the school resource officer’s role, required training and other policies. The agreement also would have allowed either the district or the Police Department to withdraw from the partnership through a written notification. While the district had budgeted $30,000 for the position to reimburse the town for work hours at the school, all other expenses would have been covered by the Police Department.

In the School Committee’s discussion on Thursday, though, members Michele Giarusso and Melissa Gerry said they would be in favor of revisiting the topic at a future date because the district’s budget has already been approved for the next fiscal year.

“For this to come forward after we passed a budget and we know the towns’ assessments, I wouldn’t be in favor of doing that right now, but maybe we need to survey the community and the students for next year.” said Giarusso, a Leyden representative. “I think communication with our community is important.”

Gerry, of Bernardston, said the committee “can’t possibly survey every single item that comes before us” and there has been a “misrepresentation” regarding the amount of community feedback they received last year, as she noted they got emails from the public and staff, as well as comments during meetings.

“There were many different avenues that were taken into consideration when we made this decision; it wasn’t just what the public saw,” Gerry said, adding that there is “fear-mongering” happening around the discussion. “We had talked about this. … Unless there is substantive change that has been presented to us by the school district, I think we need to stay with our decision.”

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School Committee member Silvia Cummings, however, said “this should be something that we should survey.” She shared her own experience in middle and high school, where she said a school resource officer could be a great “sounding board” for kids who might not be comfortable sharing their concerns with a guidance counselor or a teacher.

“I don’t really agree with that at all,” Cummings, who is married to former school resource officer and current Northfield Selectboard member Heath Cummings, said in response to Gerry. She referenced the district’s outreach regarding child care and noted “this is really significantly larger of a topic — it’s a hot topic — so I really think that parents need to be involved.”

If the School Committee wants to revisit the topic and incorporate community engagement, Gerry said it should go back to the Collective Bargaining and Personnel Subcommittee, which crafted the initial school resource officer position.

When reached by phone following the School Committee’s decision, Northfield Selectboard Chair Alex Meisner referred to his comments made at a joint Selectboard-Finance Committee meeting between all three district towns on March 7.

In that meeting, Meisner said the role of a school resource officer is to be a leader for students and someone they can rely on. He noted Massachusetts has “some of the best training standards” in the country and national law enforcement trends don’t always apply to Franklin County.

“You hired educated individuals to educate our students and the Northfield PD had somebody ready for that,” Meisner said. “We have offered to pay money to fully fund this position, that’s how passionate we are about this in Northfield.

“God forbid, if a deadly force incident happens and it costs the life of a child or an adult, and the officer was not able to be there because of the result of some bad politics and policymaking as a result of the School Committee, the responsibility will be falling on that entity,” Meisner continued. Meisner’s comments drew a swift rebuke from School Committee member Stephen Martin, who said “Mr. Meisner, you cannot say that” and that the statement was “embarrassing our towns.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.